Notes from BPU Sri Lanka - Third Year

Academic Study of Religions




Academic Study of Religions 
(lectured by ven. Gallelle Sumanasiri) 25th of February, 2011 

  • Confessional study of religion – study of religion as a member/follower of that particular religion – to study Christianity as a Christian, Buddhism as a Buddhist etc. A follower of a religion studies a religion to learn it and practice it and propagate it. Another thing is comparative study or religion – in this case we compare certain aspects of religions or the religions themselves without personal involvement, without favoring a particular religion. Academic study of religion is to be studied by not partial person, open to the teachings of all the religions that are studied.
  • Subjective and objective study of religion. Academic study of religion holds the side of objective study of religion. Similarly, like scientists study certain phenomena without any personal involvement, one should study religions.
  • Academic study of religion started in 19th century. Until then the study of religion was confessional, subjective. 
  • In the medieval Europe was a belief that one must follow Christianity and be a Christian, worship the God. Any other belief would be considered as a Satanist view. There was a believe that the Earth is in the center of Universe. However, Copernicus, an astronomer came and tried to prove that it is not true, that it is Sun, which is in the center of Universe. Another European conception was, that Earth and man were created at the similar time by the God. However, Charles Darwin, a Biologist, claimed that human evolved from animals – which was highly unacceptable by the Christian church at that time. Today the idea of evolution is widely accepted as a scientific one.
  • Another conception was, that the God created the world 4000 BC., following the teachings of Bible. However, we can see that Chinese and Indian civilizations are much older than the time of the creation of world mentioned in the Bible.
  • Christians of Europe, accepting their religion as the highly developed one, found out that there were many other religions also highly developed.
  • Maxmuller is considered to be “the father of philosophy of religions” because he wrote voluminous books about the religions of East contributing thus tremendously to the origin of philosophy and comparison of religions. Due to those voluminous works Western scholars could realize the importance and benefits of the teachings of East. Even today we refer to the books written by European scholars, who, using the international language – English – made the research open to people from whole the world.
  • Finally, Eastern religions – Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism etc. were studied in European and American universities, objectively.

Academic study of religion or what we call “philosophy of religion”, is a new, scholarly enterprise that emerged in 19th century in the West, in Europe. Religiousness is an intrinsic human characteristic, hence religion and human being are so close, that they are inseparable from each other. The above mentioned intrinsic characteristic of human being is, that he is not independent, but influenced, or subjected to control by external power or powers that cannot be pursued by ordinary senses. Those external powers were considered more powerful than human being, so that human beings tended to worship propitiate and kneel down before that.

  • In many religions it was taught, that man is dependent on God or other external forces. Only the Buddha taught, that man is independent, that man can decide and control his/her future. Human characteristic is that one wants to worship or propitiate external forces or God. However, the Buddhism teaches, that one has to depend only on oneself.
  • People believed that external powers are more powerful than we. If we believe, that we are more powerful than the external phenomena (rain, sunshine, lightning etc.) we would certainly not worship or propitiate a god or Gods. Thus, there is a religion only because we believe in the external forces that are supposed to be more powerful and control our lives. To make them happy and thus help us to make our lives smooth, we make offerings and worship them.
  • Theistic religions (= religions that endorse worshiping God or gods) are easy to be spd brain and not primary conception. Primary conception means that there is a believe in an external power that can control us. If there was no such a primary conception, certainly there would be no theistic religion.
  • People made the Buddha a God and they brought various statues of gods to make people visiting temples. Certainly, if Buddhism accepted existence of God (the creator of the world), it would be the major religion in the world.

BONUS: What is the Academic Study of Religion? 
(Russell T. McCutcheon, Department of Religious Studies, University of Alabama ; handout from ven. Gallelle Sumanasiri) February 2011

 Anthropology or Theology?
  The academic study of religion is fundamentally an anthropological enterprise. That is, it is primarily concerned with studying people (anthropos is an ancient Greek term meaning “human being”; logos means “word” or a “rational, systematic discourse”), their beliefs, behaviors, and institutions, rather than assessing “the truth” or “truths” of their various beliefs or behaviors. An anthropological approach to the study of religion (which is not to say that the study of religion is simply a sub-field of anthropology) is distinguished from a confessional, religious, or theological approach (theos is an ancient Greek term for “deity” or “god”) which is generally concerned with determining the nature, will, or wishes of a god or the gods. Traditionally, the term “theology” refers to specifically Christian discourses on God (i.e., theology = systematic Christian thought on the meaning and significance of the Christian witness), though the term now generally applies either to any religion’s own articulate self-study or to its study of another religion (e.g., evangelism or religious pluralism are equally theological pursuits).

Descriptive or Normative?
  Although the academic study of religion—sometimes called Comparative Religion, Religious Studies, the History of Religions, or even the Science of Religion—is concerned with judging such things as historical accuracy (e.g., Did a person named Siddhartha Gautama actually exist, and if so, when and where?) and descriptive accuracy (e.g., What do Muslims say they mean when they say that Muhammad was the “seal of the prophets”?), it is not concerned to make normative judgements concerning the way people ought to live or behave. To phrase it another way, we could say that, whereas the anthropologically-based study of religion is concerned with the descriptive “is” of human behavior, the theological study of religion is generally concerned with the prescriptive “ought” of the gods. As should be clear, these two enterprises therefore have very different data: the academic study of religion studies people, their beliefs, and their social systems; the theological study of religion studies God/the gods and their impact on people.

Comparison and Theory
  Like virtually all scholarly disciplines in the modern university, the academic study of religion is a product of nineteenth-century Europe. Although influenced a great deal by European expansionism and colonialism (the study of religion is largely the product of Europeans encountering—through trade, exploration, and conquest—new beliefs and behaviors, sometimes understood as strange, sometimes as familiar), early scholars of religion were interested in collecting and comparing beliefs, myths, and rituals found the world over. After all, early explorers, soldiers, and missionaries were all returning to Europe with their diaries and journals filled with tales that, despite their obvious exoticness, chronicled things that bore a striking resemblance to Christian beliefs and behaviors. As such, early scholars tried to perfect the use of the non-evaluative comparative method in the cross-cultural study of people’s religious beliefs, “our’s” and “their’s”. To compare in a non-evaluative manner means that one searches for observable, documentable similarities and differences without making normative judgments concerning which similarities or differences were good or bad, right or wrong, original or derivative, primitive or modern.

To compare in a non-evaluative manner means that one searches for observable similarities and differences and then theorizes as to why just these similarities and why just those differences. For example, most all Christians generally believe that the historical person named Jesus of Nazareth was “the Son of God” (similarity) yet only some of these same Christians believe that the Pope is God’s primary representative on earth (difference). As an anthropological scholar of religion, can you theorize as to why this difference exists? A theological approach might account for this difference by suggesting that one side in this debate is simply wrong, ill-informed, or sinful (depending which theologian you happen to ask); an anthropologically-based approach would bracket out and set aside all such normative judgments and theorize that the difference in beliefs might have something to do with the psychology of people involved, their method of social organization, their mode of economic activity, etc.

In other words, the anthropological approach to the study of religion as practiced in the public university is a member of the human sciences and, as such, it starts with the presumption that religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions are observable, historical events that can therefore be studied in the same manner as all human behavior. If they are more than that, then scholars of religion leave it to theologians who to pursue this avenue of study.

Religion and the US Supreme Court
  Although the study of religion came to North American universities prior to World War I and, for a brief time, flourished at such schools as the University of Chicago, Penn, and Harvard, it was not until the late-1950s and early-1960s that Departments of Religious Studies were established in most public universities. In the U.S., the establishment and success of these departments can be related to the Supreme Court’s understanding of the Constitution.

The opening lines to the First Amendment to the Constitution read: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....” Legal scholars distinguish between the First Amendment’s “establishment clause” and its “free exercise clause.” In other words, the Amendment states that the elected government has no right to enforce, support, or encourage (i.e., “establish”) a particular religion, nor does it have the right to curtail its citizens’ religious choices and practices (i.e., the “free exercise” of their religion). It may well be significant that, in the opening lines of the First Amendment, it is made explicit that all citizens of the U.S. have the absolute right to believe in any or no religion whatsoever.

In 1963 a landmark case known as the School District of Abington Township, PA vs. the Schempp family came before the Court. In this case a non-believing family successfully sued a public school board for its school’s daily opening exercises in which a Christian prayer was recited over the school’s public address system. The Court decided that, as a publicly funded institution charged to represent and not exclude the members of a diverse, tax paying citizenry, the school board was infringing on the rights of its students, not just by supporting a specifically Christian worldview but, more importantly perhaps, a religious worldview.

Both the Constitution’s “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses were therefore the topic of concern to the Court. Justice Clark, the Supreme Court justice who wrote on behalf of the majority, stated in his decision that, although confessional instruction and religious indoctrination in publicly funded schools were both unconstitutional, one’s “education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.” The majority of the justices interpreted the First Amendment to state that, although the government cannot force a student to be either religious or nonreligious, the government certainly can—and probably should—support classes that study the history of particular religions, the comparison of two or more religions, and the role of religion in human history. In a way, we might conclude that the study of religion is among the few fields of study mandated by a Supreme Court decision!

Fundamental to its decision was the Court’s distinction between religious instruction and instruction about religion. The academic study of religion is concerned to study about religion and religions.

The History of “Religion”
  Perhaps you never thought about it before, but the very term “religion” has a history and it is not obvious just how we ought to define the term. Obviously, “religion” is an English term; therefore, we can ask, “Do non-English speakers have religions? Would an ancient Egyptian name something as ‘a religion’?”

We know that our term “religion” has equivalents in such modern languages as French and German. For example, when practiced in Germany the study of religion is known as Religionswissenschaft (the systematic study, or wissenschaft, of religion); when practiced in France it is known as Sciences Religieuses. Even just a brief comparison of these and other related languages helps us to see that all modern languages that can be traced back to Latin possess something equivalent to the English term “religion.” This means that, for language families unaffected by Latin, there is no equivalent term to “religion”—unless, of course, European cultures have somehow exerted influence on non-Latin-based cultures/languages, an influence evident in trade or conquest. Although “religion” is hardly a traditional concept in India, the long history of British colonialism has ensured that English speaking Indians have no difficulty conceiving of what we call Hinduism as their “religion”—although, technically speaking, to a Hindu, Hinduism is not a religion but is, rather, sanatana dharma (the eternal, cosmic duty/obligation/order). Even the New Testament is not much help in settling these issues since its language of composition—Greek—lacked the Latin concept religio. English New Testaments will routinely use “religion” to translate such Greek terms as eusebia (1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:5), terms that are closer to the Sanskrit dharma or the Latin pietas than our term “religion.”

Even in Latin our term “religion” has no equivalent—if, by “religion,” you mean worshiping the gods, believing in an afterlife, or being good—what most people seem to mean today when they talk about “religion.” The closest we come when looking for Latin precursors to our modern term “religion” are terms such as religare or religere which, in their original contexts, simply meant such things as “to bind something tightly together” or “to pay close or careful attention to something.”

So, where does all this leave us? Well, it leaves us with a lot of questions in need of investigation: Just what do we mean by “religion”? If a culture does not have the concept, can we study “their religion”? Is there such as thing as “the Hindu religion” or “ancient Greek religion”? Regardless of the history of our vocabulary, is religion a universal human phenomenon or is it simply one among many ways that people name and classify their particular social worlds?

BONUS: The Academic Study of Religion 
( ; handout given by ven. Gallelle Sumanasiri) February 2011 

"Religion is powerful and persistent, and it shows no signs of disappearing. It provokes heartfelt commitment, eloquent expression, forthright action, and intense debate. For both practitioners and observers - for everyone who wants to be informed about the world around them - religion is an intensely curious phenomenon that calls out for better understanding." (

The academic study of religion as we know it today can be traced to the 19th century encounter of Western scholars and theologians with non-Western cultures. In the United States, departments of Religious Studies began to emerge in public universities beginning in the late 1950s and 1960s. The American Academy of Religion - , the preeminent association of scholars of Religious Studies in North America, was formed in 1964 and now has over 11,000 members, including faculty and graduate students from colleges, universities, and divinity schools all over North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. Today, departments of religion and Religious Studies are integral parts of humanities divisions on college and university campuses throughout the United States, promoting further understanding and appreciation of the many ways human beings express themselves in modes that can be called "religious."

The academic study of religion rests on the basic distinction between studying about religion as a field of inquiry and being religious or a religious practitioner. This distinction is central to the U.S. Supreme Court case Abington vs. Schempp (1963), a case involving daily prayer as part of a Pennsylvania school's opening exercises. The Court found the school's practice of daily prayer unconstitutional, concluding that mandated religious exercises in public schools were in violation of both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. However, the Court drew a distinction between religious instruction and instruction about religion, noting that while the former was unconstitutional, the latter was not, and indeed should be encouraged in public education. Writing for the majority, Justice Clark asserted that one's "education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization." We might say then that the academic study of religion is one of the only fields of study actually mandated by the Supreme Court for all U.S. citizens!

The academic study of religion is an inherently interdisciplinary field, incorporating textual studies of the world's sacred texts, language studies, art, history, philosophy, anthropology, politics, economics, sociology, psychology, comparative literature and literary studies, cultural studies, gender and ethnic studies, legal studies, and other approaches in order to better understand, compare, interpret, and analyze those beliefs, practices, traditions, communities, artifacts, and other phenomena we call "religious."

To read more about the academic study of religion, including some common misconceptions, pressing issues, and how to get started, see Why Study Religion - , a comprehensive website sponsored by the American Academy of Religion and funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment.

BONUS: Why Study Religion 
( ; 
handout given by ven. Gallelle Sumanasiri) February 2011 

Religion is studied by an energetic academic field.Each year, thousands of undergraduates take a course in religion. In the 1999-2000 academic year, for example, about 685,000 students took a religion course at around 900 American colleges and universities. Each school year, many students decide to focus on the topic and make theology or religious studies their major course of study.

There are two main branches of the study of religion in America today. Theology, which studies religion from the perspective of a particular community of believers, has historically been an important part of the Western university. It continues to be a foundation of undergraduate education at many American schools. The academic study of religion, which is often called religious studies, is a relatively new field that aims to treat all religious traditions even-handedly. Utilizing the tools from many other academic fields (including philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and theology itself), the academic study of religion arises out of a broad curiosity about the nature of religion and religious traditions. Religious studies offers a unique opportunity to ask fundamental questions about religious traditions. It also allows experimentation with some of most exciting ideas from other areas of study. Overall, religious studies is an exciting new field that is constantly crossing boundaries and breaking new ground as it attempt to bring its subject into better focus.

The freedom of intellectual exploration is one of the joys of being in college, but most college students also have practical concerns about how studying religion will help in "the real world."

The study of religion leads in many directions, qualifying undergraduates for further study in graduate school and giving them a leg up in certain areas of the job market. Most religion departments offer students training in a unique combination of skills, including direct observation, critical thinking, and cross-cultural understanding. In many professional fields, such skills are in high demand. In addition, many religion majors or minors go on to study law, business, education, and medicine in graduate school. Some students choose to make religion the center of a professional career, either as the leader of a religious community, or as an academic specialist in higher education. In short, the study of religion offers a wide array of opportunities and a firm foundation for a successful and fulfilling career.

Religion has always been with us. Throughout history, it has expressed the deepest questions human beings can ask, and it has taken a central place in the lives of virtually all civilizations and cultures. As we think all the way back to the dawn of human consciousness, we find religion everywhere we turn.

This may be true of the past, but what about the present - and the future? In recent times, critics have suggested that religion is on the way out. Technology and science have changed our view of the world radically, leading some to say that we've entered a new stage of human existence, without religion. Soon, they argue, it will truly be a thing of the past.

In our day and age, rumors of religion's demise seem very premature - and perhaps there's no grain of truth in them at all. Religion persists and is often on the rise, even as scientific and non-religious perspectives have become prominent. We still find religion everywhere, on television, in film, in popular music, in our towns and neighborhoods. We discover religion at the center of global issues and cultural conflict. We see religion in the lives of the people we know and love, and in ourselves, as we live out and wrestle with our own religious faith. Why does religion continue to thrive? There are many reasons, but one thing is certain: religious traditions are adaptable in important ways. For many, contemporary religion even has room for skepticism, science, and the secular, which allows it to keep going strong in our rapidly changing world.

Overall, religion is powerful and persistent, and it shows no signs of disappearing. It provokes heartfelt commitment, eloquent expression, forthright action, and intense debate. For both practitioners and observers - for everyone who wants to be informed about the world around them - religion is an intensely curious phenomenon that calls out for better understanding.